Christianity is not an opium
According to atheist philosopher, Karl Marx (1818-83), “Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point; honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo” (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).
An opium is not a medication but it pretends to be one. It does not remove pain as such, it only makes you feel good while the pain lasts. At the time Karl Marx lived and wrote, religion was used in this way. It was used to make people deny their poverty and destitution. The type of religion Marx knew or thought he knew was a religion that taught people to look up to heaven, neglecting the task of building a better world. They were presented with a religion that made them deny pain, particularly the pain of economic alienation, of not reaping much reward from their labour, while employers of labour and owners of land and capital reaped the benefits of the labour of the worker. In many ways, there are similarities between the time of Marx and our time, just as there are similarities between the way religion was understood and practised in Marx’s time and the way it is practised in our own time. One does not need to be atheist like Marx before seeing this.
One does not need to be a Karl Marx before seeing that we live at a time when people work so hard but earn so little. The ongoing palaver in Nigeria over minimum wage shows us that today’s worker is still very much underpaid. The worker has to survive on very meager finances. Our political office holders, our senators and assembly members, our governors and local government chairmen earn salaries of kilometric figures. Millions of naira are spent to pay a senator while we are still arguing over whether or not the least paid worker should earn a monthly salary of N18,000. This is Nigeria, land of pain and discomfort, where ‘’poor man dey suffer. Monkey dey work baboon dey chop.’’
Poverty has brought so much pain and health issues on Nigerians. And while our people are going through pain, we now find the emergence of a popular religion, a religion of denial, a religion that teaches you to say it is well when it is not well. Ask a Nigerian who is sick how he is, and he will most likely respond: “I am strong.” But if you are strong, why go to the doctor? Nigerians know and discuss what is wrong with the country. After all they have said, they will tell you: “it is well.”
But if we want to be truthful to ourselves, we must admit that it is not well with this country. How can anyone say it is well with a country where corruption has become the pastime? How can anyone say it is well with a country where education has collapsed? How can anyone say it is well with a country where the entire road network north, south, east and west, looks like the road network of a land that has just been bombed? How can anyone say it is well with a country where the serious business of governance is handled with levity by those who are supposed to know better? How can any reasonable person say it is well with a country where security exists only in the empty boasts of those in charge of our security agencies?
It is not well with a country where you have to know someone who knows someone before you receive your entitlement, where lobbying must be your hobby if your are to succeed. It is not well with a country where there is so much work to do while the number of unemployed young men and women is rising like the temperature of a car in traffic jam in any of our unplanned cities. It is not well with a country where promises of change are easily replaced by change of promises. It is not well with a country where a common murderer uses diversionary tactics to take attention away from his dastardly crime winning applause from the gullible.
To say that it is well when it is not well, or to say you are strong when in fact you are sick, so sick that you need urgent medical attention, is to live in denial. To now use religion as a justification for living in denial is to use religion as an opium as Karl Marx accused religion in the past. And here we must state clearly that there is a difference between Christianity and popular religion in Nigeria. Popular religion in Nigeria is an opium. Christianity is not. It is not well with Nigeria. It may be well one day if we get our acts together and we cooperate with God.
Christianity is not a denial of the real world. The Gospel of Christ acknowledges the truth, and the truth is, times such as these are difficult. But there is a gentle breeze that blows after the mighty wind. There is a soothing balm for our pain. In trials and temptations, the powerful presence of a loving God surrounds and sustains us. A mighty wind, so mighty that it tears down mountains and shatters rocks; an earthquake, and a fire, these are symbols of what we go through in life. Life is not always smooth, life is full of ups and downs. There are trials to undergo, and there are pains we experience. We must never deny that such things exist. We must never deny that there are moments of pain and discomfort in this vale of tears. The prophet Elijah experienced them when he went into the cave and spent the night in it (1 Kings 19:9. 11-13).
It is significant to note that it was when he went into the cave that he experienced all this. Fleeing from his enemies who wanted to kill him, he went in to pray. He sought refuge in the Lord. But as he went in to meet the Lord in prayer, the violent wind, the earthquake and the fire put his faith to the test. Elijah faced trials in the midst of prayer. But a gentle breeze came to calm things down. Elijah heard the sound of the breeze and covered his face because in that breeze was the Lord himself. It is significant to note that the gentle breeze came after the earthquake, the wind and the fire. If we are patient in our trials we shall be touched by the gentle breeze. Just as the prophet Elijah went into the cave to pray, Jesus went into the hills all by himself to pray (Matthew 14:22-33). He separated himself from the disciples.
While he was away from them, the boat in which Peter and the other disciples travelled experienced turbulence. In the midst of that battle with the heavy wind, Jesus went towards them, walking on the same lake, that is, on the same rough waters. The sight of Jesus on the waters increased their fright. Their faith, their already shaken faith, was put to further test. They lost their faith in the midst of trials visited on them by the violent waters. In their trials, they could not recognize Jesus. They thought it was a ghost. Peter sought to test the Lord: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” Peter tested the Lord. But it was Peter who failed the test. Testing the Lord is what you do when you have no faith. If you have faith in God you would not put him to the test.
Peter’s lack of faith caused him to begin to sink. In the same way, it is not so much the force of the wind, not the force of the trials and temptations we face that sink us. What sinks us in our moments of trials is our lack of faith in God. And our lack of faith is often to be linked to the fact that we tend to rely on ourselves more than we rely on God. Those who say it is well when it is not, live in denial. But to be a Christian is one thing. To live in denial is another. The Christian faith is not denial of pain. Christ did not promise his followers a trouble-free world. Instead, he said: “Whoever wishes to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark8:34). Rather than deny pain, the Gospel of Christ teaches us that whereas we shall go through pain, we shall triumph, even in pain. The light shines in the dark not to deny that there is darkness but to show that darkness is defeated. The gentle breeze will come. But for now, the sea is rough. That we must not fail to admit.
Prof. Akinwale wrote from Lagos.
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